01/23/2021, 08.00
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Ecumenism in Russia: fear of dialogue, strong versus weak Christians

by Stefano Caprio

There is a lot of fear and self-censorship in the country where “peace” between confessions is guaranteed by the Kremlin. The “strong Christians” preach moral principles, but are distant from the “weak”, the “lower ranks” of the population. A disciple of Fr Alexander Men is interviewed to mark the end of the Week for Christian Unity.


Moscow (AsiaNews) – Father Yakov Krotov, 63, is a well-known Russian historian and freelance journalist who grew up in Soviet times at Father Aleksander Men’s “ecumenical” school.

After Men's death, he became an Orthodox priest and served in Churches closest to Catholics (Orthodox Apostolic Church, now part of the new Ukrainian Autocephalous Church), in Moscow, where he has inspired a large community of Orthodox engaged in dialogue and cultural work.

Answering questions for AsiaNews, at the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, he expressed his bitterness over the current difficulties in his country’s ecumenical journey.

Father Yakov, apart from the negotiations and official contacts between the Churches, can you think of any exchange or dialogue between Christians of various confessions in today's Russia?

The practice of dialogue in today’s Russia is very limited. Venues where to meet and discuss are few. An atmosphere of fear and self-censorship prevails, in which open discussions are only theoretical. In practice, nothing prevents them from being considered a form of “extremism”. A new form of “encapsulation” has arisen, in which everyone turns inward. And how could it be otherwise?

The ruling regime has established itself first by expelling several Catholics, then by arresting Jehovah's Witnesses and even Orthodox who do not toe the Moscow Patriarchate’s line. An ecumenical rite of embrace is celebrated once a year in Russian Catholic churches, behind closed doors, without drawing too much outside attention.

This cannot be called ecumenism. It is the Kremlin’s will, which ordered everyone to live in peace with one another, like in the years from 1943 to 1990, from the time Stalin re-established the Orthodox Church until the end of communism.

Limited contacts do take place between “liberal” Orthodox – that is, those who at least are not anti-Semites – and Roman Catholics, but are reduced to singing and dancing (literally, people try to dance like David in front of the ark, but because of their shrunken joints, it doesn't work out very well).

This leaves the Internet as a venue for discussions but these too have fallen asleep in recent years because they lead to nothing in practice, and they are not discussions between theologians, but rows between neophytes and fanatics.

In your experience as a believer and as a priest, how would you compare the traditions of the Christian East and the Christian West?

In my experience, the dividing line is not between confessions. Vladimir Solovyov spoke of “Russia of Christ” and “Russia of Xerxes”, the King of the Kings of men; there is also a Catholicism of Christ and a Catholicism of Xerxes, an Orthodoxy of Christ and an Orthodoxy of Xerxes. Christianity of the weak versus that of the strong. As always, the latter are indifferent to the former, the satisfied do not understand the hungry.

There are very few strong who know how to be weak of spirit, and have compassion for the weak. There are many more weak who try to join the strong. Thus the union between Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox fighters is formed against the weaknesses of others, their “debauchery”, “consumerism”, etc.

Russia’s characteristic lies precisely in this clique of powerful people who have ruled for centuries, and permeated all aspects of life. In the age of Putin, the situation has worsened, due to the huge flow of petrodollars, which has allowed many people to live fairly well (working poorly and lazily), using wealth to rule the people around.

The West has delicately preferred to pretend that it's all Putin's fault. Church administrators of various levels find it easier to find a common language with their social peers than with the “lower ranks” of the population.

Personally, the American experience seems more interesting to me, the experience of Christians (of all confessions) who fight against all forms of violence, and do not fight to “prevent with the laws”, but simply fight to “stop the use of violence”. We do not have such experience in Russia.

After 30 years of religious revival, is Russia really a religious country?

Russia has become a more religious but less believing country. Until 1990 there were very few believers, but at least one could see in them the guardians of the ideals of freedom, brotherly love, and culture. Now believers are as few as before, but they are deemed degenerates, hypocrites, embezzlers and uncultured fanatics.

Like before 1990 when there were no socialists nor Marxists in the country, but there was a mass of state institutes and universities that studied Marx, so today, in the face of a small group of believers, there are tens of thousands of people who life off state money as propagandists of religion – above all Orthodox – which is seen as the foundation of patriotism and military service, and as a guarantor of social order.

The Church is funded directly by the state, and even more by businessmen, who express their loyalty to the state this way, and their trust in the Church as the bridle of the people. As Voltaire said: if my waiter goes to Mass, I sleep more peacefully.

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